Quite unexpectedly, though not secretly, a trend, possibly a movement, certainly a contagion, appears to be upwelling in the groomed and growing developments among the little hills and woody waysides of the expanding Mullica Hill commercial district.
And women, it’s all on you, about you, for you. Somehow, with little fanfare and even less marketing, a group of four Mullica Hill women have found themselves setting a local pace – a racing pace, if you’ll excuse the pun – for what seems to be an incipient national enthusiasm, the triathlon.
Traditionally a male endeavor, the triathlon is a race combining the fastest paces at swimming, biking, and running over miles and miles of lands and liquids. While lengths can vary, typically the swim is about a mile, the bike ride about 25 miles and the run a little over six miles. From an onlooker’s viewpoint, the goal seems to be to finish, hopefully first, before you succumb to the inevitable exhaustion.
For Colleen Fossett, Lydia DelRosso, Michelle Powell and Maureen Brigham, however, the triathlon is the beginning of a whole new eagerness for challenge. The friends, all busy women with families and careers, found themselves forming a new twist for the triathlon trend.
Having discovered triathlon racing, they formed a club in 2010 to foster the sport, its practice and participation, but only for women. And for good measure, they combined the athletics with fundraising for charity.
It turned out to be a winning combination, Fossett said. When the Mullica Hill Women’s Triathlon Club (MHWTC) began, there were only a few triathlon clubs in the South Jersey area. About 120 women joined the club the first year.
Now there are five triathlon clubs in South Jersey and the MHWTC is the largest on the East Coast, with about 700-800 members. It is the only club in South Jersey limited to women members, which may be a clue to its appeal.
“I think we started a spark,” Fossett said. “People wanted to join us but lived too far away so they formed their own clubs.”
Women have been competing in triathlons at the Olympic level since 2000, but it is not a sport known for its popularity in female circles, particularly not in the settled suburban circles drawn to the MHWTC.
However, “We have the demographics (in this area),” said Lydia DelRosso, co-founder. “Not that we do Olympic level, but we see women who like to exercise, though we have some who join who don’t. But everybody wanted to do something different.
“We all live in different developments in the town and we all spread the word. It just took off.”
The majority of members are not right out of college or high school. Not at all.
“We are most in our late 30s and our 40s and I’d say the main group is 30 to 50,” DelRosso added. “We even get women in their 70s. We have women with careers, four kids, the whole package. This is a big cycling community and most of our members are looking for something different.”
If your usual exercise is an afternoon run, a bike ride in the country, a few laps in the gym pool or on the treadmill and weights, then a triathlon definitely qualifies as different. But it’s not the activity mix or even the miles that pique the interest of the largely middle-aged suburban housewives. It seems to be the personal challenge that energizes them.
“I always exercised at a gym, but I never was a runner or swimmer or biker,” claimed DelRosso, the co-founder who argued for a charity goal when setting up the club. “Before we began the club I had started running and I was horrible at it. But I did a race and it was that being able to do something you didn’t think you could do. That’s the feeling for me and that’s why it’s so addictive.”
For her part, Fossett said, she had been “involved with sports most of my life, was a runner my entire life. I was tired of running and went to a triathlon (to watch a friend compete) and saw that there were women running.
“But first they were biking and swimming!” The realization of the challenge enthralled her. “I was amazed. I was 40, at the age where you’re talking with friends on the soccer fields and at church and I couldn’t stop talking about it.”
That talk, and the shared enthusiasm, led the four friends to form a club which, first order of business, they limited to women. Women feel less inhibited among themselves, the club founders decided, and wanted to foster that freedom.
It worked. It’s not just the challenge of the physically demanding, the new and different, that encourages women to push themselves to difficult goals. It isn’t only the health and fitness and weight loss benefits.
The four founders said the women who joined invariably mentioned the close camaraderie and supportive friendships members formed, the confidence they gained in reaching ever-tougher goals, and the subsequent, enduring self-empowerment they discovered. “I’ve even had husbands come up to me and thank me for the change they see in their wives,” Fossett recalled.
Co-founder Maureen Brigham said (through an email) that she often sees women at the market or church, “and they thank me, Michelle, Lydia and Colleen for starting the club, they … say how completing a (triathlon) gave them the confidence to overcome really difficult situations in their lives, gave them the health and energy needed to care for sick parents or sick children, helped them overcome or better manage depression and anxiety. It’s really true that consistent exercise has a lot of positive effects and it’s more fun to do this with a group!
“Another favorite club benefit of mine,” Brigham continued, “is all the friendships that have formed, it’s amazing to see all the new circles of friends! I think the club grew (because) women wanted to share the positive benefits of completing a triathlon with other women. It really is a lot of fun and it’s fun you want to share. Women become healthier, more confident and empowered! It’s a great gift to share.”
Michelle Powell, the fourth co-founder, echoed similar thoughts, also via email. Powell is one of more than 100 MHWTC members who competed in an Ironman competition last year. This is triathlon races taken to a punishing level. Powell said her desire to form the club stemmed from her first triathlon.
“When I completed my first triathlon in 2009, I was on top of the world and immediately wanted to do more triathlons. I reached out to (Colleen) to see if she wanted to form a team to train together. I was sure if I could finish a triathlon, with the right training, anyone could do it. During the past seven years, I have seen countless women experience the same thrill and sense of accomplishment I had when they cross the finish line of their first triathlon.”
Her successes drove Powell to tougher goals as she continued to challenge herself. Ironman competition is top level, “the most prestigious and difficult accomplishment in the sport of triathlon,” Powell said.
“For me personally, (it) was not only a physical and time management challenge, it was a mental battle like no other. In the end, I knew that once I completed the (Ironman), I would be able to apply this accomplishment to many other aspects of my life. After training for nine months for Ironman, I gave birth to a new, improved Michelle Powell. I’m happier, stronger and not afraid to deal with uncomfortable situations. I have confidence that I can do anything I set my mind to do.”
In other words, empowered. But beyond that, there is the inspiration. It’s what Fossett saw when she watched her first triathlon and recognized the focus, the accomplishment, the sheer determination “of women of all shapes and sizes. I said, ‘Why am I not doing this?’ So, you could say I was inspired by seeing women doing something I didn’t think (until then) I could do.”
The club, recognizing the value of women inspiring women, now includes a youth and a teen group. The idea is not just role-modeling, but preparing girls for the expanding trend of women in triathlons.
Now that the sport has become a Division I college sport, “We are grooming young women for scholarships,” Fossett said. “And from there, for the Olympics.”
The 2017 kick-off meeting for new members wishing to learn about the Mullica Hill Women’s Triathlon Club will be held Tuesday, Feb. 28, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Auletto’s Caterers, 1849 Cooper St. in the Almonesson section of Deptford Township. Doors will open at 6 p.m., exhibits from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. and presentations from members will be from 7:45 to 8:30 p.m. All four founders will be speaking.
The club is a non-profit fundraiser for charity. For more information, see its Web site at mullicahilltriclub.com.
By Jean Redstone